In October, Tunisian Parliament withdrew the newest version of a police protection law that it has repeatedly attempted to adopt in the past despite fierce opposition. The new draft law on the “protection of security forces” would impose disproportionate criminal penalties for various acts that jeopardize security, exempt security forces from criminal liability when they use lethal force, and reinforce impunity that could pave the way for no accountability for security forces.
This has come amid continued efforts to resurface laws deemed repressive and inconsistent with the Constitution and international standards on the Parliament’s agenda, possibly leading to no accountability for security forces. Even worse, given the increased abuses by security forces against activists and opponents, such draft laws trigger fears among Tunisians of giving away a decade-long fight against the repressive regime of Ben Ali to regain their rights and freedoms.
The notion of adopting a law criminalizing attacks on security forces is not new to the country. It was first proposed to the National Constituent Assembly by former Prime Minister Ali Larayadh in 2013 in response to the ongoing terrorist attacks against armed forces—since late 2012, dozens of police officers and soldiers have been killed in attacks. Nevertheless, the proposal met with fierce opposition from human rights groups and a number of political parties.
In June 2015, attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and on a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse injured and killed dozens of people, most of them foreign tourists. Five months later, 12 presidential guards were killed in a bus bombing close to the Ministry of Interior.
After these attacks, a bill emerged in 2015 on the “repression of attacks against armed forces”—an initial post-revolutionary proposal to reinforce impunity—with the approval of the Minister of Interior and security forces unions. In 2017, another unsuccessful attempt was made to adopt the law. After three years of postponing the review of the law, a new draft law on the “protection of security forces” was approved by the General Legislative Committee in July 2020.
Insufficient protection of fundamental rights and freedoms
The initial version of the draft law that was submitted to Parliament in April 2015 presented a number of problematic provisions. For instance, this older version authorized criminal charges against speech deemed to be “denigrating” to the police. In addition, it limited the right to access to information while providing a long list of criminal penalties up to 10 years in prison and heavy fines for obtaining or publishing security or military information without prior authorization.
While these alarming provisions were removed from the latest draft law, several concerns remain in the text, potentially infringing upon constitutional and international law. For example, Article 7 of the bill grants security forces criminal immunity for the use of excessive lethal force to repel attacks against citizens in circumstances perceived to constitute “serious threats”—in a blatant violation of the principles of equality between citizens and the right to life for all Tunisians (Articles 21, 22, and 23 of the Constitution).
Vague concepts without definitions such as “serious threats” would undermine rights and freedoms and leave the door wide open for security forces to justify their acts and use of power under the guise of self-defense, representing a concern given the regular attacks on activists online and on the ground under the ongoing state of emergency since November 2015. Throughout this period the authorities have the power to restrict protests, limit the right to freedom of assembly, censor publications, and arrest anyone accused of disrupting public order.
Moreover, the Parliamentary Committee decided in its latest plenary to classify the law as “organic law” rather than “ordinary law” in accordance with the Constitution. While both organic and ordinary laws are enacted by Parliament, organic law pertains to specific issues concerning human rights and fundamental rights (Article 28: Constitution), requiring the approval of the absolute majority of Parliament members (50 percent plus one). Whereas simple majority suffices for approval in ordinary law. This further demonstrates the degree to which authorities view this draft law, as it relates to its implications for fundamental rights and liberties.
Crackdown on peaceful protests and online speech
Over the last five years, civil society organizations and citizen-led movements have been consistently battling against the adoption of the draft law. On October 6, upon the start of the second legislative session, Parliament referred 10 draft laws to public session for review and approval over less than two weeks. Four of these draft laws were considered by civil society organizations to be “dangerous” including the police protection bill, along with others that pose a threat to human rights such as the State of Emergency draft law and draft amendments to the Broadcast Media Regulations. As a result, more than 20 human rights groups joined forces and issued a joint statement denouncing the “alarming legislative return” and urged Parliament to take immediate action by abolishing the police protection bill, despite the changes that had been made to it.
After calls from local and international civil society groups, dozens of protesters took the streets in Bardo and mobilized in front of Parliament to call on MPs not only to withdraw the bill, but to drop it entirely from the agenda. Police responded with physical violence towards protesters, and four were held for “participating in a riot” for three hours at the Bardo Police Station and were denied access to lawyers.
The activists were released in less than 24 hours but the violations against those opposing the bill have also moved to social media platforms. A number of Facebook pages associated with the police union have posted pictures of protesters alongside slogans they raised during protests, naming, shaming, and threatening them with action for “denigrating” security forces.
Among those activists is Wajdi Al-Mahawashi who was recently sentenced to two years in prison for “insulting the judiciary.” However, Al-Mahawashi’s lawyer has maintained that his involvement in the recent protest against the draft law represents the “real reason behind this case.” Wajdi had posted a photo of himself during the protest holding Tunisian dinar paper bills in front of police officers—to symbolize corruption— and his photo was shared widely on social media platforms. On December 7, another six activists were summoned and some arrested including, Saif Ayadi and Hamza Nafsri for their affiliation with “Hasebhom”, a youth-led citizen movement that has battled persistently against the passage of the police protection bill since 2017. According to Hasebhom, the charges against the activists include the obstruction of public roads, attacks on and denigrate of security forces, and violation of the Emergency Law. Abusing such charges against peaceful protestors shows the extent to which legislation furthering impunity would embolden already-harmful practices of silencing opponents and human rights activists.
Implications on the democratic transition
On October 12, following persistent opposition to the bill and outcry from civil society and activists, Parliament officially postponed the adoption of the police bill indefinitely. This decision came upon the request of President Kais Said, in view of the importance of the bill and the need for adequate conditions under which it could be debated. While the bill is no longer on Parliament’s agenda, this does not mean that the draft law will not be revisited again—especially in the aftermath of any future terrorist attacks.
These repressive laws should no longer exist or be justified especially in light of the democratic, social and political transformation the country is undergoing. Moreover, security forces benefit from an expansive legal arsenal and the police protection bill addresses a range of issues that are already covered in other regulations of Tunisia’s Penal Code, the general statutes of the internal security forces, and in the Anti-Terrorisim Law.
In the absence of political stability in Tunisia, enabling impunity of security forces could facilitate a crackdown on activists and opponents in a country where freedom of speech was one of the most tangible post-revolutionary gains following the fall of Ben Ali ‘s regime. In addition, in light of the ongoing prosecution and arbitrary detention of activists, the future of the right to freedom of assembly and movement under the draft law and the immunity it offers to security forces may lead to shrinking of civic space—online and offline—hollow out democracy, and reduce opposition in the country.
Rather than discussing and enacting repressive laws used to stifle free speech and wedge a gap of distrust between security forces and citizens, the Tunisian government should continue to aspire for legal and political reforms— with particular attention to security sector and police reform— reinforce accountability and reject repressive policies and regulations that would shield security forces, such as the police protection draft law. Additionally, Tunisian authorities should ensure that any new legislation maintains the ability of civil society to function freely and incorporates robust human rights protections, especially in times of health crisis and state of emergency, including not only the right to freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement, but also the right to life and the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention.
This article was published as part of TIMEP’s “Ten Years On: Organizing in the MENA region” project.